The Terai Arc Landscape Project (TAL) - Rhino Count

A scientific census in a challenging terrain

To conserve an endangered species, it is important to determine the number of animals, and whether that number is increasing or decreasing. For this purpose, the rhinos of Chitwan National Park - the world's second largest population of the greater one-horned rhino - are counted every 5 years.

 / ©: Jeff FOOTT / WWF-Canon
Rhinos have a good sense of smell. This one is raising the upper lip to collect olfactory information about approaching people and elephants.
© Jeff FOOTT / WWF-Canon

This can be done by counting a few samples in typical areas and extrapolating the total figure of the population from that. But in this case, that will not do.

"When the population of the species is small, it is really important that the counting method is a total count, in order to get reliable numbers", says Kanchan Thapa, Senior Research Officer with WWF Nepal. The Count was also co-supported by National Trust for Nature Conservation.

Through jungles and tiger habitats

"There have been rhino counts here in 1994, 2000, 2005 and now 2008. The method is the same, making figures comparable", Thapa says. The method, scientifically validated by biologists, involves systematically combing through all rhino habitats and recording the sex, approximate age, and individual markings of each rhino that is been seen, as well as date, time, and location.

Nepal is the only country in Asia to use this method. The great advantage of the method is its preciseness. Recording individual markings enables the comparison of all the different sightings with each other, revealing instances where the same individual has been sighted twice.


But combing through most of the 968 square kilometres of the park, plus the surrounding buffer zones is easier said than done. Inside the park, the jungle is often too dense to enter with a jeep, and the presence of tigers makes walking too dangerous. The only way to make this possible is to use tame elephants, and experienced riders and counters.


"In the count 2008, in Chitwan National Park there were 30-40 recorders in individual elephants moving parallel to each other", Thapa explains. "The distance between them depends on the sightings between the two elephants in the rows. This is largely determined by the presence of vegetation in the site. For example in grassland the sighting between the two counting elephant is highest and therefore the distance between them is maintained about 150-200 m. In a dense forest it is less, maybe 50 m. When the crew observes a rhino, the two nearest elephants move closer together, and individual markings of the rhino are recorded. Then they move ahead again, to let the rhino pass."


For some of the people working in the 2008 count, this was already the fourth time. Even though some of the local participants are illiterate, they know every aspect necessary to carry out this operation. In Bardia National Park 12 recorders were involved in the count.

Time to bring them back again

"From the 2005 to 2008, the rhino population in Chitwan National Park had grown by 3.2 per cent per year", Thapa says. In the count of 2008, a total of 408 rhinos were counted in the Chitwan National Park

The number of rhinos in the Park had dropped from 544 in 2000 to 372 in 2005. Without the anti-poaching measures that have been implemented actively by the park, with the financial and technical support from the TAL project, the numbers would have fallen a lot more sharply.Twenty two rhinos were counted in Bardia National Park and five in Shhuklaphanta Wildlife Reserve during the Rhino Count 2008.

As long as there are rhinos, there is hope. "We brought Nepal's rhinos from the brink of extinction once, and we will do it again, with the joint effort of conservation partners from around the world," says Dhan Rai, Senior  Program Manager with WWF Nepal's Terai Arc Landscape Program.